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Jan 23, 2014

Note, Tim Wilson, speech not the only freedom worth protecting

The new appointee to the Human Rights Commission has a lot to say about the curriculum. But Crikey's writer-at-large says maybe Wilson needs to go back to school himself to swot up on basic theories.


Tim Wilson, the small government enthusiast who is soon to take up the $6000-a-week taxpayer-funded position at a commission he wants to abolish. He has not begun there yet (or as he says in his press release, he is yet to “assume the position”; I hope to god this is a sly Animal House reference, rather than Wilson being as gormless as he looks in his publicity shots) but he’s had some things to say about the school curriculum. According to Wilson, the “human rights” component of the curriculum has very little to say about the liberal rights that preceded the post-1945 creation of “human rights” as an expanded concept.

Wilson says the current national curriculum doesn’t do anything to shore up “our liberal democracy” because (quoting — surprise — the Institute for Public Affairs) “there is not a single reference to the struggles for rights and freedoms such as that which occurred during the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and afterwards by American revolutionaries, [whose] whole purpose of acknowledging human rights was to protect the citizen against excessive government power”. Wilson suggests that Isaiah Berlin’s (actually T.H. Green’s, a half-century earlier, but let that pass — we’re only talking about getting history right, after all) distinction between negative liberties (restraint of government) and positive freedoms (enablement of citizens) can be applied to the contradiction between individual liberal freedoms and collective rights, as embodied in anti-discrimination laws.

The most interesting thing about this argument, which is largely a farrago, is how easily Wilson comes around to assuming a statist position regarding a curriculum — an assumption he, and Education Minister Christopher Pyne, share with Labor, even as they differ over details. Those of us who want a curriculum that teaches the actual history (while acknowledging multiple interpretations), without criss-crossing it with “themes” that are geared towards Australia’s export-led reorientation to Asian economies, would prefer the Magna Carta and the English and American revolutions be taught first as shaping historical events, then as topics for debate and argument. The obvious other side of Magna Carta is that it was a document cementing feudal power; its effect was to restrict the real freedoms of the English peasantry for centuries. The United States constitution has one clause hymning “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and another counting slaves as three-fifths of a human being. The Bill of Rights explicitly protects freedom of speech, but not of association or assembly, because it was written by propertied men with access to publishing who feared “the mob”.

Right-wing liberals take this arbitrary notion of rights as “natural” or “god-given”, which allows them to prate on about Andrew Bolt while criminalising anyone in a leather jacket (Queensland), anyone who wants a drink at 2am (New South Wales), or anyone who wants to protest on public ground (Victoria) — all while presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. The focus on “free speech” becomes a blind, whereby other freedoms can be all but extinguished.

I’d like the Magna Carta, 1688 and 1776, to be taught so that a good teacher can suggest that side of them, as well as their role in expanding universal rights. Wilson wants them to be a part of nationalist propaganda, to suggest as given that we live in a “liberal democracy”, rather than debating whether a country with media monopolies, compulsory preferential voting, vast income inequality, no limits on campaign spending, no bill of rights and few implied constitutional rights can be realistically called either “liberal” or “democratic”. Maybe yes, maybe no, but the job of education and a curriculum isn’t to answer the question before it’s asked — it is to impart the historical knowledge, then teach kids to think independently about the issues.

“Wilson is proposing that he act, as a state employee, to protect those whose freedoms are being curtailed by the state.”

How does Wilson slip so easily into a statist position? He makes an equivalence between negative liberties and positive liberties, which should be anathema to classical liberals (and was to Wilson, before he accepted a position with it). His conflation of “positive liberties” with “human rights” is inaccurate in any case — “positive liberties” refer overwhelmingly to material freedoms, the argument being that humans who are starving, freezing or dying without healthcare are not free, no matter how many bills of rights they have, so any meaningful freedom must assume minimum and universal material conditions. The positive-negative/negative-only division of liberties is the Left/Right political division, in essence, and they are different in kind. Making “anti-discrimination” laws the representative of “positive liberties” allows Wilson to present them as all on the same plane — and all deserving of the attentions of the Human Rights Commission.

But of course, classical liberals believe that rights are best protected by a minimal body of laws protecting people from government. Wilson is proposing that he act, as a state employee, to protect those whose freedoms are being curtailed by the state.

Why this absurd turnaround? Politics, pure and simple. The article’s commitment to a propagandistic right-wing curriculum is a bit of a sideline. It is principally a way by which a classical liberal can justify taking a $300,000-plus salary from a government body. The government itself lacks the guts to abolish the Australian Human Rights Commission and take the political heat, so this ideological redefinition must take place. It is impressively shameless.

Still, nothing goes to waste. Here’s something for the maths curriculum: TW is a 30-year-old think tank hack, with no other significant work experience. Calculate his likely private sector salary. Now: (a) subtract it from $320,000; (b) what percentage of TW’s new lifestyle is being subsidised by the state?

  • Supplemental question 1: Presume TW believes the utility of his new job to be 0. What, by his definition, is the marginal utility to the taxpayer of the work he will be doing for the $320,000?
  • Supplemental question 2: Presume TW has a child every year for the three years of his tenure. Calculate the additional cost to the taxpayer of TW, including paid parental leave and paternity cover costs above replacement salary to the taxpayer.
  • Supplemental question 3: If TW uses 50% of his paid parental leave to pay for a full-time nanny, how many pamphlets (@3 months/pamphlet) can he write on the “scourge of welfare dependency” for the IPA?
  • Supplemental question 4: If a portable dialysis machine costs $12,000 and extends the life of a long-distance remote renal patient by one to two years, how much is TW costing then?


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37 thoughts on “Note, Tim Wilson, speech not the only freedom worth protecting

  1. Corey Ander

    Thanks for the article. Can you recommend a TV series that expands on these issues from a neutral perspective?

    As for Tim’s side of the story I’m afraid that I’m unwilling to pay uncle Rupert for the privilege of reading Tim’s article. Free speech my arse!

  2. Richard

    grade a trolling, guy

  3. David Coady

    One caveat Guy. The US Bill of Rights does explicitly protect freedom of assembly. The first amendment guarantees, not only free speech, but also “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”.

  4. bushby jane

    I used to like TW on The Drum! He’s really sold out. I think as an aside that Supplementary Question 2 will not apply to Tim.

  5. klewso

    “Too Right” Tim quoting the I P A lot – isn’t that a conflict of disinterest?

  6. klewso

    …. which reminds me, I gotta get my prostate checked.

  7. Michael

    TW’s appointment is one of the greatest trolls of all time.The column inches and radio time filled with the left’s outrage are clear and amusing proof.

  8. klewso

    That’s Right. All you have to do is disregard the voluminous resources devoted by the conservative-dominated media to outrage when Labor made an “inappropriate political inspired appointment”?

  9. paddy

    Checks calendar. YES!
    The winner of this week’s Troll Thursday is GUY RUNDLE….
    By a glorious country furlong.

  10. Patrick Brosnan

    “Can you recommend a TV series that expands on these issues from a neutral perspective”.

    I don’t know about neutral but Adam Curtis’s documentary ‘The Trap’ has a reasonably large bit on Isiah Berlin’s notions of positive and negative freedoms.

  11. AR

    Slippery slope stuff “impart the historical knowledge, then teach kids to think independently “.

  12. Patrick Brosnan

    I was amazed at Tim’s outburst on the law changes in NSW viv a vis drinking hours. Apparently there is something called a ‘right of self determination’ which the restrictions are violating. I can’t see the connection between liquor licensing regulations and inalienable human rights. I’m sure Tim has the references to back him up …

  13. annabelle.lukin

    Thanks again Guy. Just lovely to read.

  14. Patrick Brosnan

    Bush Baby:
    Perhaps Tim ‘acquires’ a child each year. A suitably economically dry way of putting it while at the same time respecting the sexually othered’s rights to adopt.

  15. Jimmyhaz

    It’s always seemed to me that inalienable human rights are things that conservatives like, while the overbearing nanny state is what it is called when the government protects freedoms that they don’t like. If Andrew Bolt got mountains of (totally deserved) abuse every time he stepped outside, you can bet that he would be writing in his blog about how the government protecting freedom of speech is tantamount to Communism.

  16. Electric Lardyland

    Wasn’t the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, actually all about overthrowing a Catholic king and thus, keeping his fellow religionists out of government? It just seems a bit of odd in the present climate, that on the one hand, Australian right wingers seem to have some sort of veneration for this historical chapter, but at the same time, would install Kevin Donnelly to do a review of the national curriculum, which seems geared towards recommending more Catholicism in our state schools.

  17. David Hand

    The Magna Carta was a significant step in the limitation of the king’s absolute power and the precursor for the English parliament. As such it remains one of the most significant events in the creation of England’s, and by extension Australia’s, democratic freedoms.

    In Guy’s hands it was also, “a document cementing feudal power; its effect was to restrict the real freedoms of the English peasantry for centuries.” As if 13th century English peasants had any real freedom at the time.

    Yep, in Guy’s world, students will debate the oppression of the masses in the 13th century by way of the Great Charter.

  18. Guy Rundle

    david hand –

    the feudal system was only consolidated over the course of the post-1066 years; in the century or so after that it was only gradually extended to all areas of english life. By 1302 being ‘untied’, ie travelling on the road by unpropertied peasants (villeins) was punishable by death – hence the term ‘villain’. But by all means continue to parrot the little golden books version.

  19. Guy Rundle

    david c –

    not fully. the clause reads:

    ‘…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’

    assembly was usually taken as secondary to the petition part. thus there is still limited protection against anti-picket and anti-demonstration laws.

  20. David Hand

    That’s great Guy,
    In attempting to educate our students about how Australia’s democracy was created, picking up highlights across a thousand years of history, it’s important to focus on the servitude of peasants in the 13th century.

    Should you actually put this forward as a serious option for Australia’s curriculum, I’d love to be there and watch.

  21. Electric Lardyland

    I find it interesting that in the right wingers odd view of history, that there is always the insinuation that the British were directly responsible for Australian democracy. This view tends to ignore the facts, that Australia introduced many of what most people would consider to be fundamentals of a modern democracy, prior to their introduction in Britain. Things like; votes for women, votes for the working class, secret ballots, an elected upper house, etc.

  22. Guy Rundle

    david h –

    the simple point is that if you teach the magna carta, or any historical moment, you have to teach both sides of it. Otherwise, it’s simply propaganda.

    Your scorn at the idea that teaching history might involve teaching how the mass of people lived throughout the middle ages – and how that might have influenced how we live today – makes the obvious point about the ‘teach democracy’ crowd.

    You’re anti-education, and anti-intellectual. Simply boneheads. Your only use for history is to celebrate a propagandistic view of Australia.

  23. David Hand

    But surely the significance of the Magna Carta is that it was a major step on the journey from despotic rulers towards parliamentary democracy and empowerment of the ordinary person. It limited the absolute power of the king and laid the foundation for a parliament.

    The Magna Carta didn’t enslave people any more than they were already enslaved.

    But hey, I’m an anti-education anti-intellectual bonehead. What would I know.

  24. David Hand

    Hey Electric,
    You shouldn’t nick yet another prize from the kiwis who beat Australia to universal suffrage by 19 years.

    But your point is well taken. Australia and New Zealand innovated such things as universal suffrage and Britain followed. And of course Britain still doesn’t have an elected upper house.

    The British settlers brought the Westminster system with them and so Australian democracy is built on the journey Britain has taken for hundreds of years. So for students in Australia to understand our parliamentary democracy and how it came about, the British journey is directly relevant.

  25. Guy Rundle

    David H –

    you’re missing the point. To decide that Magna Carta was X, Y or Z and then simply teach it, is the opposite of a liberal, plural education. It’s simply indoctrination. No historical event has a single meaning. The Magna Carta founded some rights. It also strengthened the power of the aristocracy. That did not benefit those subject to them. That process culminated in the peasant rebellions of the 1300s, which started the long historical cycle which led to the 1649-1688 english revolution and the 1776 US revolution. The latter in turn led to a genocide of native americans, something which the english had restrained.
    The first act of australia’s liberal democracy was to institute the ‘white australia policy’, and the exclusion of aborigines as citizens. So the country was neither liberal nor democratic to any great degree.
    And so, these things should be taught as events in themselves, not moments of the past defined by the present, and present political needs.

  26. David Hand

    I think you’ve put it very well Guy. The Magna Carta strengthened the power of the aristocracy but at the expense of the king. I doubt that the villeins of the 13th century noticed a loss of freedom following the signing of the document. And I agree that it’s a step in a historical cycle that has gone on for hundreds of years.

    I find you last point difficult to accept. Calling the Magna Carta a self-contained event and not something that led to subsequent events doesn’t fit with my anti-educational, anti-intellectual boneheaded world view.

    But your idea is worth considering. For example, we could call the arrival of the first fleet in Botany Bay as an event in itself and not something defined by the present and present political needs.

  27. Guy Rundle

    david h

    if you doubt that those below the aristocracy didn’t notice a lessening of their freedoms in the century following magna carta, you are simply ignorant of the history, and still working from the one-dimensional view of the event gained from an ideologically-shaped history.

    I explicitly didnt say that magna carta didnt lead to subsequent events – i said it did. what i said was, its meaning should not be determined by its usefulness to a received idea of some great story of ever-improving democracy.

    And as regards Botany Bay, as i said:

    “Those of us who want a curriculum that teaches the actual history (while acknowledging multiple interpretations), without criss-crossing it with “themes” that are geared towards Australia’s export-led reorientation to Asian economies, would prefer the Magna Carta and the English and American revolutions be taught first as shaping historical events, then as topics for debate and argument. ”

    In other words, I’m as critical of labor’s curriculum, as i am of the coming liberal stitch-up. why dont you read the article you’re commenting on, before you do so?

  28. dazza

    I thought he was a carbon accountant .. for IPA. This is a fantastic write of the idiots in general. Thanx…

  29. Didgeridea

    Odd to see the “Glorious Revolution” referred to as expanding universal freedoms, given that the primary spark was King James’s move to allow greater religious freedom. From an Irish perspective, the revolution was neither glorious nor bloodless. It involved the bloodiest ever battle on Irish soil, the cynical betrayal of the terms of the Treaty of Limerick, the suppression of the Catholic majority, the installation of sectarian bigotry at the heart of the Irish body politic. Protestant England got the Bill of Rights, Catholic Ireland got the Penal Laws.

    Abbott’s mob likes to quote Edmund Burke, here is what he had to say about the Penal Laws:
    “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

  30. morphy richards toaster

    Brilliant article, Guy.

  31. David Hand

    Hey Guy,
    I actually did read the article I’m commenting on. I clearly didn’t understand it.

    From my anti-intellectual anti-education boneheaded perception, I thought the magna carta actually did limit the power of the king and lead to parliamentary democracy. Hey, maybe it means something else to a towering intellect such as you and I confess that its influence on the oppression of the 13th century masses was left out of my history lessons in the 60’s.

    It must be so liberating to have an understanding of history that is not shaped by an ideologically shaped one-dimensional world view.

  32. AR

    OneHanded – less vexatious vitriol, more vision might help you understand.. y’know, akshal words..

  33. sottile6

    David Hand’s comments are an endorsement of the results of that recent study which found that it is almost impossible to overcome a person’s bias even in the face of overwhelming evidence. People stick to their ideological beliefs no matter what evidence is laid before them. Depressing but I have seen this demonstrated in reality many times. If right wing people want to cling to the shibboleths which comfort them we should not waste too much time trying to convince them. It is very kind of Guy Rundle to give lefties ammunition to use against them. It always makes us feel better. I am always amused when they actually think they’ve won an argument though. I would like to know why they don’t understand concepts like evidence, both scientific and historical, logical discourse and logical fallacies, as well as many philosophical concepts. Congratulations to all those who exercise restraint in the face of their oppressive ignorance. Maybe it’s time to give up the internet and go back to the streets everyone!

  34. klewso

    sot, it’s called “Penberthy Syndrome” – and they hate mirrors – they can’t see themselves doing what they condemn others for.

  35. Liamj

    @ sottile6 – “..Maybe it’s time to give up the internet and go back to the streets everyone!”

    No, lets stick with symbolic activism, its so easy it must be effective, lmfao.

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